Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Master of Horror, Edgar Allan Poe

As a recurring theme in  Behind the Walls of Nightmare, I'd like to discuss masters of horror. These are writers who influenced generations of horror writers to come, but whose works are often no longer read. I'll start with Edgar Allan Poe.

Poe's Writing

Although Poe was much maligned during his  lifetime and immediately following his death at age forty, he is now known for his profound influence on horror, science fiction, and detective fiction. Poe's short stories and poems are in the Gothic tradition, but he goes far beyond Gothic themes and conventions to focus on the psychology of fear: what Poe refers to as “the terror … of the soul”.

Poe is also a master of dramatic irony and first person narrative, which leads to a form of “dawning” horror as the reader uncovers the protagonist's intent prior to the victim. In his short story “The Cask of Amontillado,” the reader discovers with horror as the story unfolds that the narrator Montresor actually intends to "bury" Fortunato alive inside the wall in his cellar. In “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the unreliable narrator tries to convince us of his innocence and sanity while recounting his murder of an old man.

Poe's use of atmosphere and symbolism is also a hallmark of his writing. In his masterpiece “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the house itself becomes alive as a character in the short story, and its decay and destruction goes hand in hand with the spiritual dissolution of its owner, Roderick Usher. In “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the heart which the narrator hears beating beneath the floorboards is a manifestation of his own guilt. In his poem “The Raven”—which many readers may now, for better or for worse, identify with The Simpsons parody in the Halloween special—the bird becomes a personification of loss, sorrow, and premature death, which is a recurrent theme in Poe, frequently associated by critics with the early loss of his own wife to tuberculosis.

Poe's Legacy

Poe's influence on modern horror in literature and films is extensive. In literature, think of such novels as Peter Straub's Ghost Story and Stephen King's The Shining and Pet Sematary, and in films think of the works of Alfred Hitchcock and Roger Corman.

In popular music, Poe's Tales of Mystery and Imagination were the inspiration for the first concept album of the same name by Alan Parsons and Eric Woolfson joining forces as the Alan Parsons Project. Released in 1976, the album featured terrific vocals by Arthur Brown ("The Tell-Tale Heart") and John Miles ("The Cask of Amontillado"), among others.

Poe is also regarded as the father of modern detective fiction through such short stories as “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter,” which influenced Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and laid the groundwork for subsequent generations of fictional sleuths. Poe's detective Dupin used a technique he referred to as "ratiocination," in which he applied his considerable powers of reason and analysis to the solution of the mysteries. Dare I say that Sherlock Holmes followed in Dupin's footsteps? The annual award to mystery writers of excellence is the Edgar award.

Poe also had a strong influence on science fiction, including the works of H.P. Lovecraft, Jules Verne, and H.G. Wells.

Why I Admire Poe's Work

As a writer of horror, I admire Poe's story-telling skills and the psychology of his stories: the theme of terror as a projection of one's inner fears and turmoil. To my mind, "The Masque of the Red Death" and "The Cask of Amontillado" are two of the greatest horror stories ever written. As allegories that explore our fear of death, the futility of denying our mortality and the terror that waits for us in the dark, they cannot be matched.
Internet Resources

If you're interested in [re]acquainting yourself with the works of Poe, there are many Internet sources available. The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore at http://www.eapoe.org/ has an extensive list of his works, writings on Poe, and related websites. You can also visit http://poestories.com/stories.php to access his short stories and other works.

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